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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Freedom alongside responsibility in Danish workplaces!

It is no secret that Danish society is heavily structured and institutionalised from the early stages of life until the later years. Encompassing various institutions such as daycare, "børnehaver" (kindergartens) for young children, educational facilities, professional environments, and potentionally culminating in residing in a care facility for seniors who require assistance with daily activities and self-care, unless you are self-employed or retired and able to look after yourself, significant aspects of your life are subject to institutionalisation.


The overarching principle of "freedom alongside responsibility" is prevalent across these institutions, prompting reflection on its true implications - in this blogpost, in relation to mental health and stress in Danish workplaces.


Work-life-balance in Denmark

The Danish work culture places a strong emphasis on achieving a progressive and family-friendly work-life balance. Danes take pride in their reputation for being among the most productive workforces in Europe, yet they also value the importance of a well-rounded life beyond work commitments.


Social welfare programs in Denmark are designed to provide a comprehensive framework that includes 5-6 weeks of annual leave, a 37-hour work-week, and favorable conditions for parental leave, as well as the opportunity to take 1-2 days off with full pay when caring for sick children. Numerous workplaces offer flexible work schedules, remote workplace options with possibility to structure your work tasks and hours around the needs of your family, and the ability to attend own and any children's medical appointments during work-hours. These initiatives are aimed at supporting the demands of contemporary life.


Individuals originating from countries with longer work-hours, higher work-stress, and generally less flexible conditions may find it challenging to take advantage of these "perks" as well as have more leisure time on their hands. For many, the concept of freedom alongside responsibility that is prevalent in many Danish workplaces can cause anxiety, guilt, and shame, alongside apprehension regarding job security for not fully dedicating themselves to their workplace.


What is freedom alongside responsibility in Danish workplaces?

In a Danish work-environment, there is an expectation for all individuals to assume accountability and demonstrate the capacity to work autonomously - obviously, within their capabilities. This concept is encapsulated in the phrase "freedom alongside responsibility" which applies to many, if not most Danish workplaces. Such approach affords employees a significant degree of autonomy, flexibility, freedom, and adaptability when it comes to organising and executing their tasks; obviously, always remaining mindful of meeting established deadlines.


Tasks may not always be assigned explicitely, and given that your manager does not frequently monitor your work directly, it is crucial to demonstrate initiative by assuming responsibilities and resolving issues independently. The nature of the flat organisational structure implies that it is anticipated for you to raise concerns and seek assistance and guidance from coworkers and your direct manager when encountering obstacles in a task and require direction on how to proceed.


Within Danish workplaces, the prevailing ethos emphasises the principle of granting freedom alongside responsibility is underpinned by the conviction that

  • embracing ownership of task planning and execution has been proven to reduce stress levels among staff.

  • taking on responsibility and accountability for job duties enhances motivation and raises performance standards.

Furthermore, these principles are relevant to the confidence management has in your ability to complete your assignments unless you communicate otherwise.


Nevertheless, if you are not accustomed to working in this manner, it could potentially become a stress-inducing factor that could negatively impact your mental health.


How does mental health play a role in "freedom alongside responsibility" in Danish workplaces?

It is widely regarded as inappropriate behavior to work while feeling unwell. Nevertheless, the precise delineation of illness is not always straightforward, creating a nebulous area in which it becomes the responsibility of the individual employee to not only assess their ability to work, but also the potential hazard of spreading infection to their colleagues.


In the case of mental illness and stress, evaluating one's own capacity to work can pose challenges. Symptoms of stress typically accumulate gradually, rendering it challenging to perceive any alterations until one reaches a critical juncture. Similarly, individuals grappling with mild to moderate depression and anxiety frequently adeptly conceal their difficulties behind cheerful facades, efforts to please others, and consistently producing high-quality work within deadlines. In this scenario, it appears that work is progressing smoothly; however, it may be advantageous to consider the benefits of proceeding at a more deliberate pace.


If you are new to Danish workplaces that emphasise "freedom alongside responsibility", and you aim to demonstrate your value, it may be tempting to persist even when you are not at your best. However, it is important to differentiate between taking a few sick days due to the flu and needing time off due to stress, mental health issues, personal/family health concerns requiring treatment, or challenges stemming from such situations. Moreover, difficulties such as an excessive workload, tasks exceeding your expertise, relationship issues, or adjustments faced by your spouse or family in acclimating to life in Denmark can also affect your performance and necessitate a temporary reduction in your workload or absence from work.


Many individuals continue to perceive a significant stigma surrounding mental health issues, and are concerned about the potential impact on their job security if they need extended time off. Furthermore, the cultural shame and embarrassment associated with mental illness and stress in some societies often discourages expatriates from discussing their challenges openly.


Being a dependable and responsible employee in a workplace that promotes autonomy while emphasising accountability necessitates the effective management of one's mental well-being to maintain consistent performance levels. This does not entail striving for perfection, but rather involves recognising any signs or obstacles that may affect your productivity, and acknowledging the importance of open communication with your manager regarding any issues that may impede your ability to perform at your best.


For many individuals, the idea of engaging in conversations about deeply personal and sensitive topics with their manager may seems daunting. There may also be concerns about being perceived as vulnerable, anxiety of facing potential employment repercussions, and subsequent implications on one's financial well-being - as well as potential concerns about the challenges associated with securing alternative employment opportunities, if required. These issues, in isolation, do not support the recovery process and may exacerbate the existing challenges.


In my professional and personal experience, most managers and leadership teams demonstrate a willingness to participate in open and candid discussions about how they can best support you during difficult times. It is crucial to recognise that your performance in meeting work duties not only affects you personally but also plays a pivotal role in fulfilling contractual obligations for your employer.


Hence, keep in mind that it is highly beneficial for management to assist you in dealing with any mental health issues that may arise. They are prepared to help you in handling your tasks and directing you towards advancement. Furthermore, it is important to note that the Danish system recognises that employees perform at their best when working in adaptable and supportive settings.


Regrettably, due to a relatively recent introduction of international professionals in Denmark, many Danish workplaces are not fully attuned to the cultural nuances surrounding addressing challenges openly. However, an increasing number of coaches, therapists, and communication experts are diligently striving to educate managers and leadership teams in organisations with international employees on how to effectively assist their diverse staff members.


Within numerous Danish workplaces, a culture of freedom prevails, creating a mutual responsibility to address mental health concerns and stress effectively. Instead of placing the burden solely on international staff to initiate discussions during challenging times, it is imperative for employers to proactively engage with their international employees. Simultaneously, expatriates must strive to familiarise themselves with Danish work practices to empower themselves to communicate their needs before reaching a critical juncture.


For professional guidance on managing mental health or adjusting to new challenges, I invite you to explore my website. Here, you will find information regarding specialised services in therapy and coaching designed to meet the unique needs of expat individuals, couples, and families.


Upon arrival in Denmark to assume a managerial role, it is crucial for individuals to consider the aforementioned guidance and aim to achieve a harmonious blend of active involvement and inquisitiveness, while refraining from overly controlling the team. Additionally, be prepared for your employees to seek your support in addressing both personal and professional obstacles.



If you would like me help with approaching these or other aspects of expat life, please reach out on tel 0045 5188 6187 or e-mail henriette@thegoodexpatlife.com.


First published August 2022, revised June 2024.



Freedom alongside responsibility in Danish workplaces




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